This year marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968. It was one of the saddest days in African-American history as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement was gunned down in Memphis. He was only 39.
King and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were in Memphis to support a sanitation workers’ strike for better wages and benefits, job safety and union recognition.
The night of April 3, King spoke at Mason Temple Church in Memphis and delivered his prophetic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.
King said in part: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land.
“I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The evening of April 4, King was preparing for dinner when he was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
Blacks across America took to the streets to express their anger and grief. While some protests were peaceful, riots occurred in such cities as Baltimore, Chicago, Louisville, New York City and Washington, D.C.
A 40-year-old white man, James Earl Ray, was suspected of shooting King from a window ledge. Ray fled after the murder, setting off an international manhunt
Funeral services for Dr. King were held on April 9 at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and family and close friends attended. Thousands of people followed the casket as it was carried by two mules to Morehouse College for a public service.
James Earl Ray was captured on June 8 in London and eventually sentenced to 99 years in prison. He later insisted that someone else was involved in the crime and also suggested a government conspiracy. Ray died on April 23, 1998 at age 70.
Sources: Defender files, history.com, King Center, National Archives